No More Ivory Palaces

I sat down to tickle the ivories of my piano last week on Earth Day (April 22) when I remembered “Junior.” This young male clearly had an attitude. While the other elephants in the herd ignored us and were splashing in the water, this teen was not pleased with the close proximity of our Jeep. He stared at us, swayed his trunk, and then used it to deliberately spray dirt in our direction.


Our guide explained that Chobe National Park in Botswana has 120,000 elephants, the largest concentration of elephants in the world. I’ve always been fascinated by the intelligence and majesty of elephants. Elephants live in matriarchal herds consisting of between eight and a hundred elephants and are led by the oldest and often largest elephant in the group. Males leave the herd between the ages of eight and twelve and usually live alone.

Elephants have phenomenal memories, and the matriarch often guides her herd to watering holes miles away that she remembers from years before. Elephants can also communicate over long distances with a sub-sonic rumble that travels over the ground rather than in the air. They assimilate messages through the sensitive skin on their feet and trunks.

Both male and female African elephants develop tusks at the age of two, which is quite unfortunate because the ivory trade is one of the most nefarious practices in our world. Ivory has been a valuable commodity since the Greeks and Romans had a predilection for high quality works of art, sacred objects, and religious boxes. Ivory has been traditionally used to cover the white keys of pianos and adorn knife and gun handles. It has also long been valued in China for art, decorative fans, and practical objects such as chopsticks.

Ivory is occasionally mentioned in the Bible. Psalm 45:8b says, “From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad.” Hence the 1915 classic song, Ivory Palaces. In 1 Kings 10:22, we read that King Solomon had a fleet of ships that used to come every three years bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. Ezekiel 27:15 even makes the ebony/ivory connection: “The Rhodians traded with you; many coastlands were your own special markets; they brought you in payment ivory tusks and ebony.”

There’s just one problem. Ivory comes primarily from elephant tusks, and elephants need their tusks for food as well as protection. Once tusks are gone, they never grow back. Even more important, elephants are one of God’s most amazing and precious creations!  The time for ivory palaces is long gone.


In the 1980’s the African elephant population decreased from 1.3 million to 600,000 because of illegal poaching. Public outcry resulted in stringent controls against the illegal ivory trade and restored the elephant population. In 1989 an international trade ban on ivory was instituted through the African Elephant Conservation Act. For centuries ivory was used for piano and organ keys but began to be replaced by plastic in the 1930’s until the 1989 total ban.

However, African elephants are again in crisis. Ivory still finds its way into the United States disguised as old ivory, which is not subject to the same restrictions as new ivory. By far the largest market for ivory is China. As China moves to a middle-class economy with more buying power, the desire for owning expensive ivory carvings has become a status symbol. 80% of middle-class Chinese own one or more pieces of ivory.

Poachers today use any means they can to kill quantities of elephants in order to strip their tusks. Some poachers come in on horses with AK-47’s and take out entire herds.

In many African countries the standard practice of killing with a rifle has been replaced by mass slaughter. Sometimes entire lakes used by elephants are poisoned. Another technique is to kill an elephant and poison the carcass so that rangers can’t locate elephants that have been illegally killed. Why? Because lions, hyenas, and vultures who normally alert rangers by feeding on dead elephants perish as well. The entire circle of life is poisoned.

Our guide, Tony, said that poaching used to be a big issue in Botswana. In fact, there are no more rhinoceros in Botswana (one of the Big Five animals in Africa) because poachers killed every last one. However, with U.S. help the Chobe Park rangers have implemented a stark strategy to preserve the elephant population. No more ivory palaces.

At first the rangers decided to shoot to kill anyone they caught poaching, but the poachers started shooting back. Then they installed infrared cameras and closed the park at 6 p.m. Helicopters are now used to find poachers, and anti-poaching units are stationed throughout the park. Now, when poachers are shot and injured, they often swim across the Zambezi River into Namibia and tell others what happened. This serves as a deterrent to future poachers.

As I sat at the piano, I recalled the 1982 number one hit song, “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. On the surface the song is about the ebony (black) and ivory (white) keys of a piano. The black keys were traditionally made out of ebony, a dense black wood that can also serve as an ornamental wood. The white keys were covered with strips of white ivory, with wood underneath, like spruce.

Ebony And Ivory Live Together In Perfect Harmony
Side By Side On My Piano Keyboard, Oh Lord, Why Don’t We?
We All Know That People Are The Same Wherever We Go
There Is Good And Bad In Ev’ryone,
We Learn To Live, We Learn To Give
Each Other What We Need To Survive Together Alive.

“Ebony and Ivory” is really about integration and racial harmony, as evidenced by McCartney (ivory) and Wonder (ebony) singing together. Eventually, people tired of the song, however, deeming the piano/race connection to be simplistic and even superficial.
There is nothing banal, though, about the ivory connection between elephants and humans. Rather than use these magnificent creatures for their ivory to feed our human desire for status, we would do well to humble ourselves before the intelligence and intuition of elephants.

He was called the Elephant Whisperer. Lawrence Anthony, the long-time head of Conservation at the Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand, South Africa, was recognized for his bold initiatives to preserve the environment and protect endangered species.

Anthony was especially known for his ability to calm traumatized elephants. Several years ago two wild and dangerous herds of rogue elephants were about to be killed when Anthony agreed to rescue and rehabilitate them. He chronicled the story of how he gained their trust and friendship in his book The Elephant Whisperer.


On March, 7, 2012, Lawrence Anthony died suddenly of a heart attack at age sixty-one. At that time both herds of elephants had been released back into the wild. According to Anthony’s son, Dylan, the elephants, who had not been back to Anthony’s house for a year and a half, slowly walked twelve hours back to their former home. They kept vigil for several days without eating before making their way back into the bush.

Elephants have long been known to mourn their dead, and it is not unusual for an elephant to lose the will to live and eventually die after the death of another. But how did thirty-one elephants know that Anthony had died? “A good man died suddenly,” wrote Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D., “and from miles and miles away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the bereaved family at the deceased man’s home.

“If there ever were a time when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they came to pay loving homage to their friend.”

Earth Day reminds us that we live in a magical world. God created us to be in connection with nature and all living creatures as well as with each other. Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony. Humans and elephants love each other with a purity that not only defies common sense but brings healing to creation.

What are we missing when the lust for ivory destroys what God has created? What are we missing when the beauty of ebony is masked by prejudice? How the earth must groan in anguish when humans choose to desecrate nature rather than honor and learn from all living things. No more ivory palaces.

Ebony And Ivory Live Together In Perfect Harmony
We Learn To Live, We Learn To Give
Each Other What We Need To Survive Together Alive.


5 thoughts on “No More Ivory Palaces

  1. Dear Laurie,

    I went to Kalamazoo last Saturday to hear Bishop Talbot speak on his issue of marrying two men. I have had this on my heart for years, and am praying that someday the United Methodist Church will see that these LGBT people have the right to commit to each other in marriage just like anyone else. I am praying that soon the UM conference will make these folks just as equal as we have the black community. I just wanted to let you know that I am praying hard for this.


  2. Your Leading from the Heart column was timely concerning the ebony keys part… when will we ever get past racialism? The Donald Sterlings and Cliven Bundys of our society please just recognize that “the plantation days are over, as Oprah Winfrey said. The black and white keys are both plastic now.

  3. Thank you for this post, Laurie! We are indeed very connected to the animals (and plants) around us, if we simply stop to recognize it. The human-created plight of elephants is one of the biggest heartbreakers for me and is one of the main reasons I do not support circuses that “feature” animals. Again, thank you for choosing our animal friends to be the focus of one of your posts. I pray for the day when all humans give animals the respect and kindness they deserve.

  4. Laurie,

    I am just now catching up on my emails. This is one that spoke to me. Thank you so much for your wonderful words of meaning.

    Hugs, Shirley Klipfel

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